DANA CLAXTON’S PATIENT STORM
Indigenous presence in the popular media is usually a cue to stories of crime,
abuse, poverty, loss, fluff and feathers pride, or government sponsored success.
And Aboriginal self-representations, when they don’t mirror mainstream
narratives, are often self-reflexive tortured recitations on: ‘what does it mean
to be Native in contemporary times?’ and ‘how will we ever get over the damage?’
Meta-discourse is instructive but not very inspiring. So, I took a small
pleasure in seeing two beautiful, confident Aboriginal women talking with each
other in Dana Claxton’s new online video, “The Patient Storm.”1
While mainstream representations of Aboriginal people grow with our population,
Aboriginal knowledge has not received proportional air time. There is talk in
these circles about Aboriginal knowledge—a lot of preteritive gesturing toward
and around—but the general public is rarely served more than a glimpse of the
content. Resistance to engage may be because this knowledge is not just
information; this knowledge is embedded in committed practices and requires more
than reading and thinking. Engagement may also be difficult because the
traditional Aboriginal world view contradicts the currently dominant one. It is
metaphysical, deeply ecological and communitarian.
Elders at pipe ceremonies have told us many times that aboriginally generated
knowledge is not just for First Nations people, but should be shared with
everyone. Real knowledge transcends the particular, the nation, even history.
However, because Aboriginal ways of knowing are experiential, bound up with
communities and rituals, only those willing to repeatedly pass the social and
conceptual barriers between peoples have access. Art works can serve as this
threshold. They can be non-threatening portals between world views.
The initial gentle pleasure I have with Dana Claxton’s “The Patient Storm” comes
simply from seeing Aboriginal people not ruminating on colonialism or
contemporary aboriginality. They just get on with Being (post-colonial,
contemporary Aboriginals). This is not as easy as it sounds. We are colonized by
an imaginary that has us read Aboriginal bodies into specific landscapes and
stories.2 However, the work of decolonization need not only be about
deconstructing power and reminding us who we were, it is about performing who we
are. Perhaps we are ready to trade tropes and exchange irony for allegory.
Dana Claxton’s “The Patient Storm” is an allegory of the competing impulses in
human beings and societies: conservancy and change. Through the figures of Storm
and Lightning, Claxton’s legend suggests a system—inspired by Lakota teachings
and practices (the Sundance)3—in which these seeming opposites become
complementary. Tradition, on one side, and the desire for action and novelty, on
the other, are usually represented as binaries and often as a generational
divide. “The Patient Storm” mimics this convention, only to melt the
distinctions and show that traditional ways and modern society are not
Such lofty ambitions require an elevated site and grand characters. In order to
show her women as themselves and not as colonial subjects, and to have us see
the knowledge they figure as exceeding specific cultures, Claxton sets them in a
space apart. They are demi-goddesses suspended above the world, beyond
stereotype and historicity in a timeless continuity. However, they are not
detached. Storm and Lightning only achieve their full being when they descend
and meet the land and join its people in the Sundance.
The scene couldn’t be simpler. The set consists only of a white La Chaise
chair.4 The background is a changing projection of clouds: in post production,
Claxton keyed in images of clouds from mid-day to sunset, from accumulation to
forming storm. In the middle are images of stars and celestial spirals. The
characters are two women who personify natural forces. Claxton describes the
older woman, Storm, as “an elegant, knowledgeable patient woman;”5 and Lightning
as “a trickster type, crazysexycool girlish woman.” Their brown outfits suggest
a timeless, earthy style; but the cuts reflect different generations and
temperaments: Storm wears a smart, knee-length business dress; Lightning is
dressed in more casual culottes, a T-shirt and hoodie. What links them, besides
the brown cloth, are wrist and ankle bands, which Claxton explains, “are worn by
Sundancers, along with a crown around the head. They are [traditionally] made
from sacred red cloth and sage....” The costumes signal the traditional and
enduring alongside the contemporary and fashionable. They are differences, but
not opposites. This theme is echoed in the sound track which features a gently
throbbing synthesized music accompanied by what sounds like a traditional
The plot is just as lean. Storm and Lightning prepare to descend to the earth
but are held up by late members of their party. The scene opens with Storm (Samaya
Jardey), a woman in her late thirties reclining on a large, cloud-like chair.
Her head is tilted back; her long dark hair drapes down. The camera jumps back
to a mid-shot revealing Lightning (Marie Prince),6 who is in her early twenties.
They talk. Storm mostly stays seated; Lightning twirls an orbit around her.
After seven minutes and 48 seconds, it’s over. Not much happens, but a whole
While we only see Storm and Lightning, at least five other individuals or groups
are mentioned. Storm oscillates between lounging languor and straight-spine
alertness. She moves slowly and gracefully with fluid and confident gestures.
She is stable, dignified, calm. Lightening describes her as sometimes “blue” and
complains that she is slow to get going, but acknowledges that once in motion,
“the whirl, the twirl brings life to you.”
Lightening is energetic. She sits only once. While her initial movements are
relaxed, as the scene progresses she becomes more animated, almost dancing. She
describes herself as “a grrrrrrl,” and as “Exquisite Lady L, keeper of bolt—the
rolling zig, zig, zag.” Her rhythmic speech is often poetic and strange. Storm
finds her impatient and her hip hopish language hard to follow. Storm often
makes faces and ignores Lightning when she is particularly obscure.
“Rattling Wings,” “the Lightning People,” and “the prince,” are the only other
beings given proper names. Lightning is one of the Lightening People, though, as
“keeper of the bolt,” she may have an elevated status. Because Storm is waiting
for “the others,” and regularly restrains and corrects Lightning, we can infer
that she is in charge, perhaps even personifies the whole system. “The prince,
the tide,” is more of an allusion than a character, and even then, he is a
confused reference. When Lightning mentions him, Storm is puzzled; suggesting
that either she doesn’t know him, or doesn’t understand the whole sentence.
Lightning’s energy is sensual. Her speech is full of rhythm and rhyme: “Stormy
Storm, let’s twirl the swirl and swirl the twirl, zig the zag and zag the zig.”
Her words flow and jump as her body glides in near dance. She often seems silly;
but just as often, wise. Her reference to the prince might be a silly moment.
Storm seems to treat it that way. But Storm is clearly repressive and side-steps
Lightning’s many sexual innuendos. “Follow the fellow, the prince—the tide.
Become wet, become untied.” The building rhythm and force of the tide, here
figured as masculine, wetness, and the play on tide and untied seems an obvious
string of sexual metaphors. But Storm isn’t biting. The building energy, the
anticipation, frustration, and concluding off-screen release is the elemental
force that drives the story’s action.
Lightning speculates that “everyone else,” or “the others,” meaning Rattling
Wings and the Lightning People, may be late because they are “caught up in the
valley, the valley of lovvvvvvvvvvvve.” Some sort of polymorphous sexuality
seems to be roiling in this snug metaphor: “he and me, or him and you, her and
he, or she and she, or him and he, or they and they, which ever way….” Storm
looks disturbed and changes the subject. Is she puzzled that these possibilities
exist, or that the Storm knows about them? Whatever the case, she has other
things on her mind and wants other things on Lightning’s mind. At the moment,
the Lightning People are running hot while Storm blows cool.
“The Patient Storm” is not the retelling of a traditional story; it is a
creative, contemporary allegory. Apart from the weather, what do these figures
represent? Storm is a slow moving but dynamic force; not an individual storm but
the force behind individual phenomena. Similarly, Lightening is not an instance
of lightning, she is “keeper of the bolts,” an inexhaustible archetypal energy
behind every specific occurrence of lightning. Storm has two aspects: Storm, the
storm potential, the burgeoning energy that she tries to conserve, knowing full
well that it must eventually irrupt; and Stormy, her complementary, violent and
generative aspect. We only see Storm in the video. Stormy only manifests when
Storm leaves the scene at the end of the video. She explains that Stormy is her
“fundamental nature,” and that she is impelled by energies beyond herself to
reveal her irrepressible force: “I have an obligation to appear and present
my…my fundamental nature. Everybody must.” This is not an embarrassment, but an
acknowledgement of the fundamental rhythm of the universe.
Storm is driven by several forces. As Storm, she is conservative, a leader and
regulator, keeper of protocol. She follows the rules and obligations that
precede her. These “civil” principles are complemented by an equal force, the
Stormy aspect, characterized by whirling and twirling, by dance and pleasure.
They conceivably have the same energy—but the static state requires less of it
so endures longer; the active state dispels its energy more quickly and subsides
sooner. When Lightning describes their transformed character once they present
their other aspect, she uses the word “turbulence,” which Storm violently
rejects in her only burst of anger: “Turbulence! Is that what you call us? No
darling, not turbulence…we are the glamorous clamour overhead.” The storm/dance
is not a disruption, but a beautiful and joyous aspect of a continuum.
Storm is calm and patient before the dance. She is conservative—literally,
holding back, cautious, waiting for the right moment. However, when that moment
comes, she lets loose, literally loses herself, becomes Stormy. Storm is the
figure of tradition. Traditional peoples have a conservative aspect, the
teachings and rituals that hold them together. At the same time, traditional
societies also set aside a time and place for ecstasy, for rituals, dances,
visions, fasts and feasts that attract and release spiritual and physical
Lightning is an apprentice to this duality. While she is drawn to impulsive
youthful action, she allows herself to be checked by the older being. She is
positioned between the revellers in the valley—a group and activities she seems
to know all about and may even have just come from—and the more adult Storm. She
signals her willingness to pass from youth to adulthood by being the first of
her group to take her place alongside Storm. Symbolically, she even slips into
Storm’s chair/throne for a moment, as if to try it out. As the elder, Storm is
often irritated with Lightning’s impatience and imperfect understanding, but
does appreciate her timely arrival and playful, revitalizing energy.
Against her foil, Lightning, Storm is less energetic and more of a grown up. And
yet, in her shifting from proper posture sitting to draping herself over the
chair, she displays sensual possibilities. Her movements hint that she loves to
dance, but that there is a proper time for everything. Lightning’s body is less
regulated. She tries to contain her energy, but it is constantly spilling into
dance. She tries to control her language, but it is continuously falling into
The last figures are “the people,” the humans upon which the storm will be
visited. In her first speech, Storm says: “If we don’t appear—something is
wrong. The Cosmos gone crazy—the people will say.” She is not a free agent; she
is regulated by the force of tradition and unconscious necessity of her nature.
The Cosmos is both how things are but also what things mean. Without these
recurring events, both natural and social (the storm and the dance) “something
The most ambiguous term in the video is “the others.” Sometimes it means the
late (possibly) orgiastic Lightning and Wind folks; other times it means “the
people.” The “others,” in the sense of “the people,” is subdivided into two
groups: those mortals who participate in the dance/storm and those who resist.
Also, according to Claxton, “the others” are “those who don’t believe and those
who are anti Indian in general.” But “the others have been opposed to us for so
long” also include “those Indians who are so Christianized that they fear their
own traditional spiritual practices.” Lightning explains: “sacred little scaredy
cats. Their knowledge did not fare well to wisdom just. Imagine that. Their
opposite stance makes them tall …even for little little scared fur balls.
BUT..ah!!! ..not tall enough to see… certainty. Perhaps they are blind….eyes
gone missing, eyes shut, shut!” In this cosmology, ideally, everyone, human and
nature and divine will be swept up in the dance, “this moment of connectivity,”
where all “fundamental natures” are expressed and are one without division. This
is the ecstatic experience; “the glamorous clamour”!
Storm and Lightning are given full, complementary natures: physical and
metaphysical; responsible, yet sensual; traditional and ecstatic. The
oppositional others have knowledge but not wisdom. Lightning further proposes
that their status derives from negation. It seems what is rejected may be
ecstatic pleasure, losing oneself in a group ritual, in metaphysical belief.
While the others’ materialism might raise them in one aspect, it makes them not
quite tall enough to see into this richer realm. Lightning sees the denial of
spirituality as either a tragic or a wilful blindness.
Storm and Lightning participate in another sort of knowledge (Aboriginal ways of
knowing) that permits you to join the ecstatic moment, dissolve into the dance.
Storm says, “Those who know will join us and the others are going to have to
wait until they are ready.” Lightning repeats, “Join us, those who know, start
getting ready….until the others are ready, they will have to wait.” This
knowledge may be as simple as accepting metaphysical possibilities and being
open to community. The lack of this knowledge of how things are is figured as
ignorance. Storm and Lightning face the camera and invite us to the dance, but
they do not coerce. This is not an evangelical faith looking to win converts.
Infidels are not killed; they are recognised as afraid, pitied and left to
themselves. The others must simply “wait until they are ready” (to end their
The video concludes with Lightning saying, “…we dance across the sky—without
defeat.” Despite the opposition and disbelieving others, they and all who
believe and participate, and live with their dualities and in the connectedness
of all things, will persist.
This construction of identity through the denial of the metaphysical and its
social expressions, Lightning suggests, is based in fear. It could be that
Claxton is characterizing this opposition as male (“fur balls!”), or at least as
masculine. But that is not necessarily the case. When I asked her about it, she
didn’t think so. She explained that the scaredy cats refer to people who are
afraid of Aboriginal cosmologies and rituals.7
Toward the end, the coming storm, which Storm leads but is also subject to and
overwhelmed by, is characterized by Lightning as “the moment of hope, this
moment of promise, this moment of love, this moment of connectivity….” This,
according to Claxton, is the Sundance where all the elements come together:
I have been a Sundancer for a while now and the thunder and lightning beings
must attend the dance, a storm must make an appearance. Lightning and thunder
confirms and rain cleanses. So they make their appearance, the cosmos, as they
did the night before our shoot—which doesn’t happen very often in Vancouver—a
huge lightning/thunder and rain storm that woke Marie Prince. Lightning came
into her room. Storm had an experience as well. Me, I slept thru the entire
storm...as I had come home 2 days before from Sundancing and needed a good long
With the Sundance, I maintain and enhance my own relationship with the cosmos
and the divine. It gives me strength, spiritual strength and connectivity to
that realm, as well as strengthens my family ties both in Saskatchewan and South
“The Patient Storm” is designed to cross boundaries and encourages boundary
crossing: between people, peoples, and from metaphysics to spirituality.8 It is
a modern legend that echoes the past to reveal the common dance behind all
When I watch “The Patient Storm,” I sense something in the wind: a warm, faint,
sweet scent that prefigures a glamorous clamour. I feel in the calm; an
after-battle exhaustion, longing for home. But nothing is as it was. Is it time
to turn from the surging red energy of righteousness; from the tools of struggle
to those of rebuilding? Dana Claxton offers hope and possibility.
1 “The Patient Storm” is an online video project, created by Dana Claxton, and
commissioned by Urban Shaman for the Storm Spirits - Aboriginal New Media Art
2 Many sources could be cited. By a good recent one is: Greg Young-ing, “The
Indigenous tradition/New Technology Interface.” Transference, Tradition,
Technology: Native New Media Exploring Visual and Digital Culture. Walter
Phillips Gallery Editions Melanie Townsend, Dana Claxton, Steve Loft eds. 2005.
3 “The work does specifically address the Sundance, when Ahawsis invited me to
participate, and I read the curatorial intent, the first image I had was of the
Sundance and the storm and cloud formations that I have seen. The Lakota
teaching, "everything you need to know is in the sky," also came to mind (from a
correspondence with Dana Claxton).
4 The La Chaise is an organically shaped chair that invites sitting or reclining
equally. Designed by Charles and Ray Eames (1948) for a Museum of Modern Art
competition, it is inspired by "Floating Figure", a sculpture by Gaston
5 All the quotations from Dana Claxton are retrieved for email conversation I
had with her in preparing this essay.
6 “Storm is Salish from Capilano Reserve and Marie Prince is from up north
Carrier country” (Dana Claxton).
7 “Certainly...the "others" are those who are anti-Indian and the furballs are
scardee cats…both male and female...perhaps on a subtextual level more male…”
8 “Claxton has described her two new works as an attempt to construct a
‘religious art approach,’ one that ‘hybridizes a cultural process of
contemporary art-making and traditional knowledge by creating a site where two
seemingly different ways of knowing or being interface.”
Dana Claxton’s “Artist statement,” ArtSpeak Gallery. May 2000, cited in Monika
Kin Gagnon, “Worldviews in Collision: Dana Claxton’s Video Installations,”
Transference, Tradition, Technology: Native New Media Exploring Visual and
Digital Culture. Walter Phillips Gallery Editions, Melanie Townsend, Dana
Claxton, Steve Loft eds. 2005. p. 70.
David Garneau is Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Regina.
He has a BFA in Painting and Drawing, and an MA in American Literature, both
from the University of Calgary. David was born and raised in Edmonton, lived in
Calgary for twenty years, and has been living in Regina since 1999.
David Garneau’s practice includes painting, drawing, curation, and critical
writing. His solo exhibition, “Cowboys and Indians (and Métis?)” is currently
touring Canada. Garneau’s work often engages issues of nature, perception,
history, masculinities, and the negotiation of White, Aboriginal and Métis
identities. He has curated two large group exhibitions in Calgary, “The End of
the World (as we know it)” and “Picture Windows: New Abstraction,” and four in
Regina, “Transcendent Squares,” “Sophisticated Folk,” and “Contested Histories”
for the Art Gallery of Regina, and “Making it Like a Man,” for the Mackenzie Art
Gallery. He is currently exploring the Carlton Trail as a landscape and
historical subject, and road-kill as a landscape and still-life subject.
David Garneau is Associate Professor and Head of Visual Arts at the University
of Regina. He has a BFA in Painting and Drawing and an MA in American
Literature, both from the University of Calgary. David was born and raised in
Alberta and has been living in Regina since 1999.
David Garneau’s practice includes painting, drawing and critical writing about
the visual arts. Solo exhibitions include: “Sex, Violence and the Death of
Heroes,” “Peripheral Pictures” and “Cowboys and Indians (and Métis?). His work
often engages issues of nature, perception, masculinities, and the negotiation
of White, Aboriginal and Métis identities. Garneau recently curated two large
group exhibitions in Calgary, “The End of the World (as we know it)” and
“Picture Windows: New Abstraction,” and two in Regina, “Transcendent Squares”
(Rosemont Art Gallery) and “Making it Like a Man,” a national exhibition and
conference for the Mackenzie Art Gallery. He is currently exploring road kill as
a still life subject and is curating two exhibitions for 2005 at the Rosemont
Art Gallery: “Sophisticated Folk” and “Contested Histories,” produced by the
Sâkêwêwak Artists' Collective.
David has been writing about art for seventeen years. In 1989, with Mary Beth
Laviolette and Paula Gustafson, he co-founded and co-edited Artichoke magazine.
He was western editor for C magazine (1995-1999), and was co-founder and editor
of Cameo, an arts, music and fashion magazine (1995-7). He has written catalogue
essays on such artists as: Peter von Tiesenhausen, Michael Campbell, Carroll
Moppet, Greg Payce, Catherine Burgess, Martha Townsend, Wyn Gelyense, Dick
Averns, and Walter May. And has written reviews for local papers in Calgary, and
national art magazines including: C, Fuse, Vanguard, BorderCrossings, Vie des
Arts, Canadian Art, Ceramics: Art and Perception, Parrallelogramme…. David has
given his workshop, 1000 words, Exactly: Writing About the Visual Arts for
Publication, in Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Fort MacMurray, Windsor, London, and